Great ambition and conquest without contribution," explains Assistant Headmaster William Hundert in THE EMPEROR'S CLUB, "is without significance!"
Once upon a time in America (during the years immediately after the triumphs of World War II), when a majority of teenagers left formal education by the end of eighth grade to find manual work, become wives or join the Armed Forces, both public and private schools continued the claim that they were "molding the character of future generations, creating our new leaders." Such ideas had sustained Empires and Civilizations since ancient times. And in our Country, a nation of immigrants believed that free public education was a path for their children to the American Dream.
[My Father certainly did.]
Competition was keen, but over the next 20 years, as automated processes and machines reduced the industrial and casual workforce; as our young became disillusioned with our wars and fell innocent prey to our Philistine commercial culture; as the idealism of the past was replaced by the pragmatism of the present, concepts of ethics retreated more and more to private schools, where our elites had the luxury of utilizing them in Games Theory. THE EMPEROR'S CLUB deals with the ethical training of our business and political leaders, in light of the conflict now ravishing our Nation and its institutions over the eternal question: "Do the Ends justify the Means?"
"The end... DEPENDS UPON... the beginning,"
So thinks William Hundert, retired Socrates from St. Benedict's School for Boys, as a helicopter drops him into the encampment of a modern Alexander, Sedgewick Bell (Joel Gretsch), his former pupil. He has come in the Fall of 2001 to this luxurious New Jersey Gold Coast business retreat facility for a reunion of St. Benedict's Class of 1976. Socrates Hundert is a quiet, noble but somewhat embittered man, who has dedicated his life to instilling his students with the core values of Western Civilization. Hosting the party, Sedgewick ("Alexander") Bell, son of an ex- West Virginia Senator, is a successful business leader with political ambitions, who from an early age believed in "cutting the Gordian Knot." In his comfortable quarters, while wrestling with new, unfamiliar intercommunication systems, and interpreting ambiguous memos on the weekend's itinerary, Hundert tells us how it all began.
"This is a story... without surprises," he tells us, but in some ways he is being ironic, certainly rueful. And of course, as he speaks to us, the story is not yet over.
Back in the Fall of 1972, President Richard Nixon was wrestling with what would become known as Watergate, while pondering whether or not to sign the Clean Water Act. The 14 year-old youngsters of the Class of 1976, in their shirts and ties, were gathering for orientation on the Campus of St. Benedict's (actually, Emma Willard School, in Troy, New York). All around was evidence of the past. Not only the American past. From the American Revival Architecture of the buildings and the Georgian grounds to the Classical mottos, statues, busts, and paintings, Western Civilization looked down upon them.
The School is set up in the English manner, the students divided into "houses," by year and form. Assistant Headmaster Hundert is in charge of, indeed a kind of father-figure to, the Freshmen. Dressed characteristically in tweeds, sweater and tie, he sees that the boys are settled in their rooms, know where things are, and are ready for their first classes.
Hundert demonstrates their need to learn the rules of the School. For instance, Lou Masoudi (Jesse Eisenberg), a regular sort of kid, runs across the lawn to ask him a question, Mr. Hundert first points to a sign ("Follow the Path") and asks Masoudi why he should observe it.
"Because it's good for the grass?" wonders the puzzled Masoudi.
"No," admonishes Mr. Hundert. "Because it is good for You."
Following that straitlaced lesson, we meet two other students, who will figure in this story of no surprises: Martin Blythe III (Paul Franklin Dano), son of a St. Benedict's graduate, desperately wants to live up to his family's tradition, and Deepak Mehta (Rishi Mehta) is already hitting the books, eager to be a credit to his mother and his Indian heritage.
There is an opening ceremony, at which Headmaster Woodbridge (Edward Herrmann) welcomes everyone, and gives the School's mission statement, that St. Benedict's will attempt to educate all the students in mind, body and spirit to the highest standards. "A Man's Character is Fate," the Headmaster reminds them, quoting Heraclitus.
The Freshmen do well in the first weeks of the semester. From the film's focused and stylized point of view (Hundert's), their central and seemingly only course is the Assistant Headmaster's demanding Introduction to Western Civilization. Their classroom is decorated with busts or depiction's of Plato, Socrates, Diogenes, Euclid, Cicero, Marcus Aurelius and the other Caesars. (These boys, of course, are well prepared and have studied Latin, if not Greek.) Hundert teaches in the Socratic method, in front of a huge painting of "The Death of Socrates," and his St. Benedict Freshmen soon learn that he wants answers.
After beginning to memorize his student's names, one of Hundert's first acts in the classroom is to ask a student to read a quotation inscribed on the back wall. It is the arrogant boast of a king from Asia Minor thousands of years ago. Hundert asks the class, Who can identify the king? Only Deepak Mehta, who has been doing extra reading, is able to answer the question. The point of this exercise, which is repeated several times in THE EMPEROR'S CLUB, is that neither they nor we are likely to know the name of this tyrant, who ruled a world in his time.
It is then, that Hundert quotes that line: "Great ambition and conquest without contribution is without significance."
The class is impressed.
He adds: "What will be your contribution?"
From that day on, Hundert has them in his grasp. They respond to his questions, as only prepared, interested young persons can, soon politely correcting each other, adding information, and talking about the ideas afterwards. By the time they reach the Romans and the fall of the Republic in their studies, he has them, in a much admired teaching method of the day, dressing in togas, responding with Latin wisdom, on rare occasion even making connections between what they are studying and their own lives.
[This latter concept in Education is called Transference, the actual internalization of what we study. Few teachers accomplish it in their lessons; few students manage much of it or realize its importance.]
The big educational event for Mr. Hundert's students at midyear, also something of an innovation for its time, is a contest, before the gathered student body and faculty, moderated by Mr. Hundert, to determine who will receive the Palm and Triumph of being named "Mr. Julius Caesar," and have his name placed with former winners in a glass case in the School entry hall, for all to see. Some critics have suggested this quiz show on the Classical World presents a rather juvenile exercise. Perhaps so, but it is the the kind of thing which has great appeal to students. Martin Blythe III, in particular, has his heart invested on joining his name with that of his father in "The Emperor's Club," and all that signifies.
[The irony that the original Mr. Julius Caesar was the man who became absolute dictator, and for all practical purposes destroyed the Roman Republic, created the Roman Empire; that the power structure of St. Benedict's School is similar to that of Roman Society; that a modern Julius Caesar would most likely come to power in America with degrees from such an elite school -- those matters lie unremarked, glittering darkly in the heart of THE EMPEROR'S CLUB.]
By design, we learn little of William Hundert's own life beyond the classroom. At one point, he remarks that he was an only, indeed a solitary child. At another, that as a boy, he loved to play baseball. These are clues to the moral crisis Hundert will endure in the course of the film.
He looks up to Headmaster Woodbridge, trusting him implicitly, as an older son might a good parent, carrying out his wishes; and the trust is seen to be returned. In that year of 1972, Hundert makes a new friend. James Ellerby (Rob Morrow), who has joined the Faculty, was an undergraduate when Hundert took his graduate degree. Ellerby becomes something of a disciple, always about, asking advice and giving help to his friend.
THE EMPEROR'S CLUB is about the many small betrayals we endure, no matter who we are, until we begin to betray ourselves.
Hundert seems obsessively dedicated to his work (as most good teachers must be, to a degree), but it is clear that another Faculty member, who we know only as Elizabeth (Embeth Daviditz), means a lot to him. Evidently at one time, they were romantically involved. She, for reasons perhaps only another woman would understand fully, married a bit of a boor, a history professor who has her firmly in hand -- and is upwardly mobile. As the flashback which comprises much of THE EMPEROR'S CLUB begins, Elizabeth has returned from accompanying her husband on a sabbatical. During Hundert's scenes with her, in his very reticence, he expresses empathy, and longing, the personal price he has had to pay for living an ethical life.
So what does Hundert do in his free time besides reading and grading papers? In any decent weather, he spends hours rowing on the river. He dresses in full sculling gear and seems to derive satisfaction from his effort. And here, we may perceive another level on which this quiet, classically complex film works. For the several sculling scenes scattered through THE EMPEROR'S CLUB make obvious allusion to the work of America's greatest realist painter, Thomas Eakins, specifically "The Champion Single Sculls" (1871), and other of his 19 "Rowing Pictures." In the scenes, we see the same clean, piston-like sublimation of sexual energy, the application of skill, determination, idealism and discipline that Hundert applies to his profession.
Some weeks into the course, a new student is entered into Mr. Hundert's Western Civilization Class, an almost unique event at St. Benedict's. Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hirsch), sullen and superior, swaggers into the class, and when Assistant Headmaster Hundert asks him to sit in one seat, young Bell deliberately sits in another, at the back of the room. He looks at his new classmates in their white togas in disbelief and lets out a suppressed horse-laugh.
[Anyone with experience in a homogeneous classroom can appreciate the disturbance this kind of event can cause. (In a heterogeneous, particularly an undisciplined classroom, a small riot may ensue.) Even in the best of classes, with the most experienced teacher in charge, it spoils the rhythm of the lesson for the day]
Hundert sizes Bell up and gently puts him in his place.
Thus, begins a classic contest of wills.
Sedgewick Bell has been thrown out of a number of expensive, highly reputed schools. Such schools do not have to put up with much -- and they do not. [A salient weakness of the Voucher Plans bandied about by promoters and entrepreneurs in the last twenty years.] Bell's father, however, the Senior United States Senator from West Virginia, has evidently made some sort of arrangement with St. Benedict's. Young Bell has been alternately neglected and bullied by his father into indifference, but Dad needs a diploma from a prestigious private school now in order to get his son into an Ivy League University or into Stanford.
Hundert handles Bell admirably, always in a professional manner, even has a curious understanding of his troubled personality.
Bell, for his part, acts like an alien time-traveling visitor from many American schools of today. He is a young cynic who, as Oscar Wilde wrote, knows the price of everything, but the value of nothing. He attempts to subvert the disciplines of the school and win his fellow students over to his side. Lying on his bed, under a poster for Godard's BREATHLESS, breaking his fellow students' concentration by throwing a tennis ball against the wall to relieve his boredom, he is the Future. He is not at St. Benedict's for an education; he is there to pick up his ticket to "contacts" and a prestigious career in the New Elite of the United States.
[In the profound unease roiling American Society at the time, the conflict between Sedgewick Bell and William Hundert is a symbolic microcosmic illustration of the proposition set forth by my old friend Carl Oglesby, in his book The Yankee and Cowboy War (1975) -- that the re-emerged, impatient Oil and Mineral-fueled desires of Southern and Southwestern interests were at war with established old money and European values from the North and Northeast.]
The philosophical climax of THE EMPEROR'S CLUB arrives when William Hundert, fearing Bell will flunk out, arranges an appointment with Senator Bell (Harris Yullin). Hundert finds the Senator a casual, imperious man who throws rumpled papers at a waste basket and brusquely asks him what his trouble is. Hundert makes the mistake of saying that St. Benedict's is trying "to mold your son's character."
Senator Bell erupts, showing the contempt for formal education which "self-made" men sometimes harbor.
"Oh, no, Mr. Hundert," he says, jutting his chin out. "You teach him 2 2=4, and who killed who when, but stay away from his character. I'LL mold his character!"
[It is an essential conflict tearing at Education in the United States today. Playing into a natural desire of students to "learn" what they already know (a mixture of what they experience at home and in the popular culture), many American families have a deep-seated distrust of ideas that do not come from their own circles.]
How the powerful Senator has "molded" his Son, and its consequences for young Sedgewick Bell, his fellow students, Mr. Hundert, and by extension or reflection, American Society, I shall let you discover. The Senator's lesson and example brings his son, and by extension, our Nation to where it is today. There would seem little time and few means to remedy our plight now.
Director Michael Hoffman, who has made other off-beat films about American moral conflicts (PROMISED LAND, 1988; SOME GIRLS, 1988; SOAPDISH, 1991), is in stride here. He gathers stock company players from his past, like Kline and Patrick Dempsey (playing the older Lou Masoudi), and mixes them with fresh young actors, getting their first break. Cinematographer Jajos Foltai (MEPHISTO, 1981; SUNSHINE, 1999; MALENA, 2000) captures Eastern landscape and architecture of THE EMPEROR'S CLUB, and keeps his camera, at a proper distance, on the players. James Newton Howard (THE SIXTH SENSE, 1999) strikes up a moving score for it all.
The cast is uniformly good, and I should think Kevin Kline will receive another Oscar Nomination for his performance as William Hundert.
Already favorable and unfavorable comparisons are being made between THE EMPEROR'S CLUB and other recent movies about American Education, like TEACHERS (Hiller, 1984), THE DEAD POETS SOCIETY (Weir, 1988) and MR. HOLLAND'S OPUS (Herek, 1995). But TEACHERS, though Nick Nolte is strangely closer to some modern teachers than most, is a satire about public schools. The absurdly sentimental DEAD POETS SOCIETY, much loved by some, is further burdened when Robin Williams breaks character to do a few of his familiar impressions, while MR. HOLLAND'S OPUS concentrates more on Richard Dreyfus's home problems.
It is an interesting lesson, in itself, for an old teacher to read some of the early criticisms of THE EMPEROR'S CLUB. Stalwart Internet Veteran Harvey S. Karten puts the film down for not being about modern New York City schools, and criticizes rather accurately some of William Hundert's old fashioned teaching methods. (Of course, experience has shown me that there is some value in knowing when something happened and why.)
Jeffrey Overstreet (in the Phantom Tollbooth, a site, curiously enough, devoted to Christian Perspectives) takes Karten's critique another step, flaying poor Hundert for not being that "Six Shows a Day" entertainer, we former students have all wanted, at one time or another. He writes:
"Halfway through the film, I felt as though I was trapped in a long and perfunctory day of boarding school while outside the sun was shining and people were living their lives. I at least would have preferred to be transferred down the hall to Robin Williams's class, so I could listen to a teacher with vim, vigor, humor, and passion."
Unfortunately, few teachers like Mr. Robin Williams exist, and alas, the few who do, are often eventually regarded as something of a joke. Meanwhile, in almost every aspect of our business, political and social life, we are dying from those who share Mr. Overstreet's desire for "Six Shows a Day" performers.
Based on an admired novella, "The Palace Thief" by Ethan Canin, THE EMPEROR'S CLUB is a moral and ethical drama, which has echoes in America's present crisis. Canin has said in an interview that he feared the original plan to cast wise-cracking Tracy Uhlmann in the part of Elizabeth and to introduce Mira Sorvino as a sultry ex-flame. "If you are subtle you lose," he said of money-driven Movie thinking.
Fortunately, Neil Tolkin's screenplay, concentrating on the novella's substance, prevailed. As Hundert quotes Cicero for his Freshmen, justifying their study of the rise and follies of the Roman Empire, "Not to know what happened before you were born is to be ever a child." To which a grown-up Sedgewick Bell seems to answer, late in the Movie: "Who gives a ____! Everybody who wants to be somebody had to lie, cheat and steal."
The American Public's passionate ignorance today of Cicero's dictum, and their sheepish, even rather cheerful acceptance of Bell's cynicism, brought together in our lumpy little melting pot, is recipe for the ignominious Fall of [American] Empire.
Great ambition and conquest without contribution," in other words, "is without significance!"
Go see THE EMPEROR'S CLUB -- a very thoughtful little film.
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